In the post Yesudas-era, music in Kerala was like a LP record stuck in a groove. Yesudas and other singers of the 1970s and 1980s dominated the Malayalam music scene. When they faded out, there was a vacuum and a need for a new musical idiom.
Over the past three years, that new idiom has arrived with a bang and resounding riffs: Kerala has been in the grip of a fusion music revival as a new generation of inventive and subversive bands tap folk, classical, rock and temple melodies to whip up a frenzy of percussion and strings, digging into the past to create a real indie music upheaval.
What is it happening and why? Are the new songs just a list of You Tube hits? Has the new generation found the voice and the music they were looking for? Or do they represent the spontaneous joy of liberation from pastoral love songs that dominated Malayalam film music for decades?
In the beginning, there was Avial
It all began with Avial, a band named after the famous Kerala dish of mixed vegetables. About seven years ago, when a motley group of singers formed the band, it was as though a thunderbolt had hit the moribund Kerala cultural scene. Avial borrowed from Kerala’s rich tradition of folk and temple music, set it to rock rhythms and put up a whacky show that Malayalis had not seen before.
“Avial was definitely the trendsetter in Malayalam rock,” said Sumesh Lal, who produces the Music Mojo programme for Kappa TV, a Malayalam music channel of the Mathrubhumi group. “Its nationwide popularity, cutting across languages was a major inspiration for all aspiring musicians and bands in Kerala.”
In the wake of Avial’s success, a slew of other bands sprouted. A group of talented, rebellious musicians broke the shackles of conservative music. The pure melody, a favourite of film music composers, in which the flute and violin tried to recreate a pastoral ambience, went out the window and sounds from far away entered. Rap and hip-hop now find place in Kerala’s music.
These bands took music out of the studios and cinemas and into the streets. The ganamela, the light music programme of mostly film songs that was the staple of Kerala’s music, was finally punished for its conservatism, staidness and failure to be inventive. From within the precincts of Kerala’s beautiful temples and from a collective memory of a bygone generation these bands found music.
Today, at least 10 to 15 new Kerala music bands are giving Malayalam music a new sound and loads of energy. Most of them got their first break when Sumesh Lal showcased them on the Kappa TV channel and earlier on the Rosebowl channel.
These bands use temple instruments such as the chenda and nadaswaram and classical ones such as the mridangam, sitar and even esraj. But their music also has the furious riffs of the guitar and the reverberation of the trumpet, the saxaphone and the drum set ‒ weapons in their search for new frontiers. The violin no longer dominates the sound, while the flute has become newly energised. A folksy baritone has merged with a smoky alto. The new voices are no longer golden like that of Yesudas’s, a voice that a moralistic and conservative society adored but that cannot be wasted on the music of ancient warfare and sometimes vulgar folk idioms.
What literary critic and poet K Satchidanandan wrote in the context of the literary revival in the early 20th century is happening today to Malayalam music: a “democratic movement of dissent, reform and awakening…in Kerala’s everyday that had so far been impregnated with ritual custom and code”.
Sluice gates open
For the past two decades, following the sunset of Yesudas, no one knew which way Malayalam music would go. The era of great poets such as ONV Kurup, Vayalar Rama Varma and P Bhaskaran was long gone. Music was just the few lines of park romance that lesser poets wrote. Avial opened the flood gates.
“When Avial was at its peak, live shows by a music band in Kerala was something very rare,” wrote a fan Hemant Kumar on the band’s home page. “Where other bands at that time tried to copy [the] West and failed miserably, Avial came up with folk-rock fusion…They made the people of Kerala open up to home-grown rock music, which paved way for other bands…”
They came in droves and were fearless experimenters. Krishna’s Temple Rock has reworked classical ragas, such as in Pa Pa Pa and Vathapi Ganapathim, infusing music heard in the cloistered ambience of temples with modern beats. Classical music was searching out a new audience, which has come in droves, jiving to the new sounds.
Smoky-voiced Bijibal and his band Down to Earth have reimagined a folk number usually sung during temple festivals and a haunting chorus. Called Krodham, it is a song full of angst, one speaking of disappointment, corruption and missed opportunities. The band, with its three-women choir, has astounding energy and depth.
Named after a small bridge in Kochi, the ten-member Thaikkudam Bridge went one up on Avial. It was inevitable that Kochi would throw up a band because it had a tradition of pop, rock and alternative music in Kerala stretching back to the 70s, with guitarist Emile Isaacs and his band Elite Aces being the early spark. He played the guitar for Usha Utup for 38 years.
Thaikkudam Bridge’s first big song, a cover version of Michael Jackson’s Beat It, got it noticed. Then like hungry wolves, the group mined the basement riches of Malayalam folk and classical music. When their founder-leader and retired government official Peethambaran’s folk number Appozhum paranjile, poranda, poranda, (Didn’t I tell you then and there not to come) was sung to the accompaniment of Govind Menon’s overriding electronic violin, it brought Malayalam folk new fans. Last year, TB did 100 gigs worldwide in six months of madness and frenzy. In December, a TB concert in the small town of Kottayam drew in 2,000 people who paid Rs 500 each.
Catching up soon was Masala Coffee’s Kantaa, a reinvention of folk music. It is full of yearning, with the protagonist expressing a desperate desire the go to the big festival in Trissur and see the fire-cracker display. The voice is gruffy, energetic and often high-pitched, suitable for hip-hop and rap, which merges into the folk rhythms, like the band has done to great effect in another song, Krishna nee begane.
Kerala loves its temples but food is never far away, as seen in the hundreds of eating joints that line the state’s narrow streets with "Meals Ready" signs hung near the entrance. It is not suprising that Thaikkudam Bridge rolled out Fish Rock, Govind Menon’s rap-a-tap song naming all of Kerala’s fish varieties. When sisters Amrutha and Abirami sang Ayala porichatu, Karimeen varathathu (There’s fried Mackarel and fried Karimeen), it was a hedonistic celebration of Kerala’s many-curried meal by their band Amrutham Gamaya. Amrutha's rendition of Hava Nagila (Let us rejoice), an Israeli folk tune, has also won her considerable praise. Kerala is discovering the world.
When Bhadra sang Vellarum Kunnile, a rerun of an old favourite theatre song, she was paying obeisance to the masters. It reminds us of Kerala pastoral, but comes packed with new beats.
Dressed for battle
A cultural battle needs not just new weapons but also new armour. Yesudas always wore white from head to toe, to signify his lily-white morality. Girls, should not wear jeans, he once said. But that too has been discarded by the new generation.
Missing out on the post-liberalisation industrial revolution, which changed the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu, and staying back home when the 1980s generation set out to seek their fortunes in the Gulf, this generation rediscovered music.
They come dressed for battle. Many of them wear the colourful Kerala lungi. Their shirts have pastel prints and, often, the red of forgotten revolutions. Thaikkudam Bridge’s members don the mundu with the golden border. Some choose ripped and stonewashed jeans.
For the past 50 years, Keralites have gone on strikes and stone-throwing protests wearing the lungi, which can be easily folded up when the time came to retreat. Today, it has taken over as the symbol of a new folksy upheaval. The singer has become the new comrade and balladeer. Hope and anger comfortably cohabit this music, as in Bijibal's Krodham, a song full of anguish. It is an anger that has burdened Kerala for long. Now at least some people are singing about it.